D I R T Y R E A L I S M : You’re So Vanier
Written by: Roger Connah [28.9.2015]
The Baklava Beach Studio
Dirty Realism is known as a literary term coined by Bill Buford in 1983 for the magazine Granta and described as follows: “Dirty Realism is the fiction of a new generation of American authors. They write about the belly-side of contemporary life – a deserted husband, an unwed mother, a car thief, a pickpocket, a drug addict – but they write about it with a disturbing detachment, at times verging on comedy. Understated, ironic, sometimes savage, but insistently compassionate, these stories constitute a new voice in fiction.” In many ways this suits us as we explore the quarter in Ottawa, originally Gloucester Township, Eastview and now Vanier. Developing as a detached francophone area of the region, it is easily identified today in the sense of the popular urban myth as seamy and sketchy; made up of lower income households, some poverty and street-walking crime. The picture offered expands; developers waiting in the wings with condo towers, ‘nice’ people ready to move in and another tame urbanism to mesh an already tamed Ottawa. Too general we say, too convenient!
The students are presented with this picture; we learn to understand – we learn to understand change – but how will we? How will they propose change? What options do they have, what ways can they work in the contemporary in a city seemingly keen to resort to the nostalgic signs and simulations of the past, a brocaded heritage and internalized comfort? Shall we go ugly cute, shall we bring in Bjarke Ingels or OMA, or the gymnastics of Daniel Libeskind, the reputed concert pianist? To say that we are dealing with a sub-category of realism is not quite the case. What is ‘identity’ (that favourite word of planners), what is negotiable, shared and shareable space?
As many speak – often from outside Vanier – of the seamier, even shabby side of this quarter, where does this ‘grit’ fit in with our theories of neighbourhood, community, public realm and genius loci? Where is the understated, the ironic or sometimes savage necessary to keep a city alive and untamed? If we prefer to emphasize the diverse community already existing there, can we suggest schemes and options that treat them as homogeneous? Why should we? From Beirut to Kingston Jamaica, from Mont Leban to Creole Sensations? From Bobby’s Table to Robert De Niro? From Donnie Brasco to Donnie Darko? Are they homogeneous because they live in Vanier? How long does a temporary resident take up the property offered before fleeing to better places: Orleans? Barrhaven? Overbrook? Just where are those ‘better places’? North Vanier, Beechwood or Rockcliffe.
The Architectural Politics of Inequality
Post-developer housing. It’s a useful phrase; it’s even catchy! But what does it mean? Dirty Realism accepts the diversity and contradictions present in the quarter; if it is a low income livelihood, if it is car-free but restless, if it is ordinary but dignified, whatever income bracket this will offer us as a studio to explore what we are invited to call, what we invite you to consider, a post-developer vision of housing. What do we mean by this? We are thinking of urban hybrid housing schemes that focus on a clear contemporary palette. But what is this clear contemporary palette which we think is not achieved by developers with their rendered urban fresh schemes and smart housing solutions for the up and coming urban professional? Lightness and elegance of fabric, service and solutions, of both surface and interior quality, have no boundaries. This is no post-code lottery. Is gentrification so over-rated?
Object and field, picking up from the urbanist, Stan Allen, will be extended to understand a new, more horizontal shaping of the Vanier environment; the idea of lateral urban cuts across the quarter not necessarily along the main arteries. However, objects themselves do not dictate urban meaning or civic shape, but the relation between options and ideas forms a context to allow a community to develop a public engagement. If we speak of the ordinary and the unremarkable we do not slight the quarter that was once a village, nor do we suggest that it always needs to go to those outside influences from the city of Ottawa to improve it, beautify it or prettify it. Tired words for a contemporary urbanism?
A lack of resource and money might create despair at times, and yet we must work within the politics of inequality that Vanier demonstrates, from its more affluent settled communities to the North to the more unstable, temporary areas of the southern part as it meets Overbrook. We are not in opposition to developers who are spot-developing various parts of downtown Ottawa, and who work for the best response to the market conditions their smart housing or developments offer. All with almost-good intentions this generally leads to repetitions of housing models of an economic stringency and strange, caricatured European traces. But it’s a lean dream, and many are beginning to question whether this will scar Ottawa with a homogeneity of city housing models that are rendered and neutered by weak imagery and icons. These urban landscapes and condo-washes, if the city is not careful, become tired before they are even completed.
So what are the students’ options? Do they have them, do we have them? How can they attend to the City Guidelines, the planning applications and suggest workable new ideas? We don’t know yet, but we will come at this in a different way. They are to design a hybrid urban assemblage of 40 housing units (mixed income), a retail-community anchor and a public/ shareable/garden space. For this thinking about housing in Vanier on selected sites (including abandoned buildings, vacant lots, a motel amongst others) we don’t necessarily see a complimentary and even contrary pattern to pre-established urban developments or develop solutions that we see in the rest of the city. Instead to explore this the Baklava Beach studio propose options for a regional and relational urbanism; a robust Dirty Realism. We propose the following starting points: in our naivety and contradiction, understatement and irony, they can and should be inspiring and attempt a disturbing detachment:
1 Housing is an urban form with and without pre-established boundaries or forms.
2 Housing can be incremental, additive, partial, scripted and narrative (avoiding total solutions).
3 Housing requires a community engagement that impacts on the agency of the development(s)
4 Housing options imply new inclusive innovative funding streams and models.
5 Housing is about integration not segregation, dignity not gentrification, lightness not nostalgia.
* The writers identified by Buford with Dirty Realism are/were Bukowski, Carver, Wolff, Ford, Brown, Barthelme, McCarthy, Gutierrez, Medina, McCullers and Phillips. One must remember, like any usefully framed critical movement, none of these authors accept that they write a dirty realism. It will be the same with the architecture and urban solutions to the housing offered.
For Part 1 Exhibition: https://archiblog22.wordpress.com/2016/01/13/baklava-beach-exhibition-part-1/
For Part 2 Exhibition: https://archiblog22.wordpress.com/2016/01/13/baklava-beach-exhibition-part-2/
For Baklava Beach’s Manifesto: https://archiblog22.wordpress.com/2016/01/13/vanier-the-future-manifesto/
For Baklava Beach’s Dirty Realism: https://archiblog22.wordpress.com/2016/01/13/4th-year-studio-housing-script/